Realism in the Middle East

This is a review of Myths, Illusions, & Peace by National Security Advisor Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

New Realism

The dominant contemporary form of the doctrine of realism was outlined by the leading post-war foreign policy thinker and author of The Long Telegram, George Kennan. He wrote a top secret memo PPS23 in 1948 which was declassified in 1974. In it, he discusses the role that different world regions will play in the overall framework of American power and outlines the basic goals of US foreign policy. He outlines the realist doctrine as follows:

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population.”

“Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

“We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” [Emphasis mine]

The obvious problem with Realism as a positive theory is the problem that Leibniz understood: one cannot decide to do something and predict that one would do it at the same time. As the only real superpower, if the United States decides that the world will be ruled by force, well then, it will effectively be ruled by force.

As outlined before, each state has what are termed ‘interests’ at stake, and the international arena is one where questions of interest are resolved by power. Power is assumed to be military power, and state interests are taken as given. Given the enormous power advantages that the United States enjoyed since 1944, this convenient doctrine quickly became the underlying consensus among US foreign policy elites. 

New Realism is not itself a doctrine. The authors claim to be clear eyed, detail oriented, realistic pragmatists. But it is really a critique of the current crop of realists like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt; who (it is claimed) actually misunderstand the power structure of the Middle East and are hence not realist enough. So, for instance, the argument of the latter two, made in their book ‘The Israel Lobby’, is found wanting because it is based on the myth of linkage.


Linkage is the notion that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to solving almost every other conflict in this highly volatile region. That unquestioned US support for Israel is detrimental in US interests in the region. It is important to note that all the way up until 1967, when Israel proved its military prowess, the Arabists in the State Department warned that support for Israel would cost the US dearly. That the United States would lose key allies in the region and access to MidEast oil. As predicted by Truman’s advisor Clark Clifford, this proved to be untrue. The petro-dictatorships in the Gulf came to depend even more on US support. They accommodated themselves to US support for Israel even as they continued to stroke this emotive issue to divert the attentions of their own populations.

A third of the book goes on to discuss how the United States should approach the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and debunking the myth of Linkage. This is worth quoting in full:

“To those who think that disassociation from Israel would help us in the region, it is worth saying again, simply and bluntly, that they are fundamentally wrong. It would not help us, it would hurt us. It would surely convince al-Qaeda and the Iranians and their acolytes [The Mahdi Army, Hezbollah and Hamas] that they were succeeding and could not be stopped.

Not surprisingly, anything that is likely to embolden al-Qaeda is bound to be seen as alarming by most of the Arab governments that in one way or another have counted on the United States to preserve a certain order in the region. Ironically, many in the Arab world also count on a strong Israel, at least indirectly, to do much the same thing by countering the radical Islamists. A weak Israel is the last thing they want to see. Like it or not, a strong Israel is a bulwark against the radical Islamists. They may seize on its presence and seek to exploit anger against it, but Israel’s power is also a constraint on what the Iranians, Hezbollah and Hamas can do.

The fact is that many Arab regimes were shaken by the Israeli military performance against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. They wanted Hezbollah to be defeated, not emerge stronger from that conflict. As we noted earlier, in September 2007, when Israel bombed the nuclear reactor that Syria was building (but never took credit for it publicly) there was not a single word of condemnation from any Arab government.”

Note that rising public anger against Arab regimes was not a concern for the authors who wrote this in 2009, well before Wikileaks and the advent of the Arab spring. In any case, this was clear to me even when I read ‘The Israel Lobby’. As Clifford might have put the matter in 1948: the Arab regimes are our clients–they will comply if we insist. It’s just a matter of power. Get over it.

Radical Islam

Radical Islamism became a major force much after Arab-Israeli inter-state conflict effectively came to an end in 1973. After the failure of OPEC’s oil price hike to check American power, the regimes caved in for good. The only domestic challenge to the authoritarian regimes came increasingly from Islamists. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran put the fear of death in the other US supported petro-dictatorships in the Middle East. They expended a lot of effort to check the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood et al across the board. The regimes variously co-opted (Saudi Arabia and the Emirates) or cracked down hard (Egypt and Iraq) on the Islamists in the ensuing decades. During the 1980s, as the Lebanese civil war raged and the Iraq-Iran war dragged on for 8 years, a much more sinister development was underway at the edge of the region.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted the CIA to support the Islamist resistance forces, the Mujahideen. Soviet weapons captured by the Israelis from Egyptian forces were transferred by the CIA, via the ISI, to the Mujahideen. Radical Islamists flocked to Afghanistan from all over the Islamic world to fight the Godless communists. Most of the funding came from the US and the drug trade but towards the end Saudi Arabia replaced the United States as the main source of funds. The tide began to turn with the introduction of the stinger missiles, which enabled the Mujahideen to take on Soviet helicopters. At the end of the occupation, there was a standing army of battle hardened and radicalized Islamist militants committed to violent jihad who then spread out like a cancer to the rest of the world: Kashmir, Chechnya, Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia, Britain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and eventually, of course, the United States itself.

This is the origin of al-Qaeda and Islamist terror. The point of outlining this history is so we can carefully distinguish between Islamists (Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood et cetera) from the Islamist militants (al-Qaeda, JeM, Abu Sayyaf et al). The latter need to be wiped out while the former could be persuaded to lay down their arms, moderate their views and participate in the political process. This is most clear in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood does not constitute a serious threat to civil liberties, and will likely be a part of an emerging moderate polity.

The latter (al-Qaeda et al) have never been a serious threat to any regime in the region. It is the former, the Islamists, who constitute a serious threat to Arab regimes. They were the only effective challenge to the regimes precisely because there were no other avenues for people in the Middle East to get together and voice their concerns apart from the mosque and the madrasa. And the combination of the youth bulge, extreme inequality and repressive government made the regimes nervous about an Islamist led revolt, à la 1979.

Iran and the Islamic bomb

That a nuclear Iran would destabilize the Middle East is considered by the authors to be an understatement. They try to make the case that deterrence may not work with the Islamic regime. They simultaneously hold the position that the ayatollahs are interest maximizing rationalists and crazy, radical fanatics who might risk collective annihilation to ‘wipe Israel off the map’. The game theory is simply saying that there are only two equilibria: deterrence and unacceptable destruction. This is robust to diluting rationality of the agents in play, by quite a bit. 

They are on much firmer ground when they talk about regional repercussions. Saudi Arabia would certainly try to obtain nuclear weapons in response, as might other Sunni regimes in the region antagonistic to Iran. It would provide a nuclear shield, effectively ruling out an American invasion to topple the regime. On the one hand, if it were only a check on American militarism, that’s not such a bad thing. But it would also make the Islamic regime impregnable, and impervious to grassroots pressure. One can expect plenty of chest beating and jingoism from the ayatollahs, and a relative shift in the domestic balance of power towards hardliners and hawks.

Even more of a nightmare is a nuclear Saudi Arabia. The United States would lose a degree of leverage over its most important client state. In that event, if Saudi Arabia did start trading in Euros, the US will have to sit back and take it. How do we embargo Saudi Arabia??

So, it has quite unpalatable domestic and regional repercussions. A preemptive surgical strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, either by Israel or the US, would at best set back the program by a few years. Its likely to embolden the hardliners in the regime who will escalate the effort and drive it further underground. Its not really a solution. Could the Islamic regime be persuaded to give up its quest for the bomb? Is there an incentive compatible mechanism to ensure that it does not make nuclear weapons??

The Iranian Fax

In March 2003, weeks after the toppling of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, the State Department received a Fax with a cover letter from the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann. Iran was offering a ‘grand bargain’ and this came straight from the highest echelons of the regime, as explained by the diplomat in this cover letter. Iran offered to completely halt any efforts to obtain WMDs and submit to stringent IAEA inspections, to cooperate with the US in Iraq, counter terror operations, and to persuade Hezbollah to lay down its weapons and stop any material support for Hamas. In exchange, the US would stop efforts to topple the Islamic regime, abolish all sanctions, accept Iranian interests in Iraq like preserving its links to the clerics in Najaf. The Bush administration did not even bother to respond.  The neoconservatives had no use for a negotiated settlement, they wanted regime change. They thought engagement with Iran would only embolden the regime.

So why did Iran make the offer? Because it was scared. As one Iranian official put it, “The fact that Saddam Hussein was toppled in twenty-one days is something that should concern all the regimes in the region.” The main drafter of the proposal, Sadegh Kharrazi, gave a speech in 2007 explaining the fax. He said, “In 2003, there was a wall of mistrust between Iran and America, and in any second there was the possibility for an American attack!”. [Emphasis of the authors]

This was certainly a missed opportunity and a major failure of US MidEast policy. As the American military got deeper into the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war on terror spread to Pakistan and Yemen, Iran’s bargaining power increased. The Islamic regime’s capacity to intervene and provide support to Shi’ite radicals in Iraq like the Mahdi Army went up sharply with rising sectarian conflict. Israel’s 2006 adventure in Lebanon made Hezbollah even more dependent on Iran. They supplied tens of thousands of rockets to the militia, all capable of hitting population targets in Israel. Likewise, US-Israeli efforts to marginalize Hamas and keep it out of power after allowing it to participate and win the elections in the occupied territories, drove Hamas further into Iranian arms.

One effect of these neoconservative debacles was that US foreign policy moved back to the realist consensus in the second term of George W. Bush. However, there was increasing international concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and growing support for serious sanctions in the UN. Then something happened that changed the international context completely.

The National Intelligence Estimate

The public release of the (National Intelligence Estimate) NIE titled “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” on December 3, 2007 was a watershed moment. The report asserted that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. To quote the authors

“One almost needs to divide the approach towards dealing with Iran into pre-NIE and post-NIE periods. Pre-NIE, Russia and China were prepared to act immediately on a third UNSC sanctions resolution against Iran; post-NIE, they both raised questions about doing so and postponed consideration of such a resolution. . .

Pre-NIE, the Saudis were trying to raise the pressure on the Iranians over their nuclear program. In early November 2007, Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, called on Iran to respond to a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal to “create a consortium for all users of enriched uranium in the Middle East. The consortium will distribute according to needs . . . and ensure no use of this enriched uranium for atomic weapons”. . .

That was pre-NIE; post-NIE, there has been no mention of the proposal. On the contrary, the GCC invited Ahmadinejad to attend their December meeting (an unprecedented invitation), and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia also invited the Iranian president to go to Mecca.”

Hence, Washington has been unable to get international support for more stringent sanctions and the effort to prevent the Iran from going nuclear has sputtered even as the centrifuges spin.

It is no longer clear that the Islamic regime would be as compliant as it was in 2003. However, there are major vulnerabilities that could be exploited to bring it around. Its estimated that Iranian revenues from oil exports would decline to zero by 2015. The authors argue for a hybrid approach of engagement without preconditions but with pressures. The underlying logic is to impose real costs on Iran for pursuing the nuclear option but leaving a face saving door for Iran to walk through.

Hamas and Hezbollah

The authors correctly argue that it makes little sense to have armed militant groups participate in the electoral process. That disarmament and acceptance of the rules of the game must be a pre-requisite for participation in a legitimate democratic process. The British insisted on the same with the IRA and it worked. But the reality on the ground in the occupied territories and in Lebanon make this possibility unlikely without a more accommodating stance by the United States and Israel. Ending the economic strangulation of Gaza and reducing the check points in the West Bank can be negotiated in exchange for security cooperation. There is already growing antagonism to Hamas in Gaza. With a new strategy, one might be able to exploit this opening. That the Islamic regime is supporting and arming these militias is not in doubt. But as is evident from their fax, it could be willing to cooperate with the United States. The biggest obstacle is not Iran or Israel, it is United States policy in the Middle East.


This book is compulsory reading for those who seek to understand US foreign policy under Obama. Even though the focus is on Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict, it lays out the framework behind White House decision making in the region. Even as events have overtaken policymakers, these concerns remain inexplicably central to the regional strategy. This has led to various miscalculations and missed opportunities. Even as the administration has jumped on the risky opportunity to remove Gaddafi in Libya, it has failed to recalibrate its strategy in the Persian Gulf.

US policymakers have assumed that they can safely ignore the internal dynamics of states. This is precisely why not a single foreign policy thinker predicted the advent of the Arab spring. Its a convenient doctrine no doubt, but one should be willing to trash assumptions that are demonstrably misleading. American strategic interests have not changed, nor does one expect them to any time soon. But the radical political restructuring of the Middle East that is underway demands a new strategy.

20 thoughts on “Realism in the Middle East

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